On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk and professor made one of the most fateful walks in human history. Parchment flapping in his hand, Martin Luther strode to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Saxony and proceeded to nail a series of ninety-five disputations into the hard wood. Earlier that day the most famous of the indulgence salesmen, Johannes Tetzel, had been in town trading the remission of eternal punishment for money to build the new St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. The practice enraged Luther and it gave him the opportunity to call out some of the most egregious sins of the church. The incident would probably have amounted to little were it not for the printing press. Copies of Luther’s 95 Theses spread around Germany and provided the needed spark for long pent up anger over the course and leadership of the church in Rome.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the Protestant Reformation on history. Most notably, it split the Christian church in Western Europe, which not only led to fundamental reforms for both Protestants and Catholics but also contributed to bloody wars. The Thirty Years War, ostensibly fought over Protestant and Catholic disputes, led to the death of thirty percent of Germany’s population. But the full impact of the Reformation was far more profound than its effects on religion and religious politics. The Reformation unleashed the concept of the individual, that the individual has a place before God and society and can think for herself. Since Max Weber in the 19th century, scholars have argued that both capitalism and modern democracy owe perhaps their greatest debt to the Reformation. Since this month marks the 500th anniversary of that epochal shift, we will celebrate that with services that honor the Reformation.
Pastor Jonathan Page will preach a series in October in which each sermon highlights a significant text and idea of the Reformation. We will peek back in time to discover what, if anything, those great debates of the 16th century can tell us today.